LAS VEGAS – The opening keynote session at Amazon’s inaugural re:MARS event featured plenty of robots to wow the crowd, as well as the star power of actor and producer Robert Downey Jr., who played Iron Man in several Marvel movies over the past 11 years. This mixture of bringing together smart people working on robotics (the “builders”) and more creative types like actors and athletes (the “dreamers”) is the main purpose of the 3.5-day event.
Dave Limp, senior vice president of Amazon Devices and Services, kicked off the keynote by discussing the origins of the company’s invitation-only, more intimate MARS event four years ago, as well as talking about a room in Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ house that has two fireplaces with the label of “Builders” on one side, and “Dreamers” on the other.
“This is a really good visual representation of what we’re trying to do here,” said Limp. “We’re trying to be to bring together the builders and the dreamers so that at the intersection we can envision what the future will look like… Now, more than ever, the gap is narrowing between builders and dreamers, and if we imagine it, we can actually built it. It is invention at such incredible speed that we’re seeing today, and this is the backdrop of re:MARS.”
The acronym MARS stands for Machine Learning, Automation, Robotics, and Space, and guests from more than 45 countries are represented at the event, which also includes astronauts who have logged more than 560 days in space. Automation is covered through technologies such as Alexa and other software-based tools, and of course, there were plenty of robots to watch.
A visit from Spot
After Limp’s opening remarks, Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert took the stage to discuss his company’s robots, which includes the new Handle robot for loading/unloading boxes onto pallets or conveyor belts, as well as the Spot general-purpose four-legged robot dog that can do things like open doors and even deliver payloads on its back – at an Amazon event, having a robot dog deliver package got a round of applause.
Raibert discussed the concept of “athletic intelligence”, how humans have the ability to use our brains to operate our bodies to do things like balance, run, and use our hands to manipulate things. “But it also lets us move energetically and efficiently, so we can travel further or conserve our strength to be stronger,” Raibert said. “It also lets us perceive the world around us in real time so we can maneuver through dynamic environments, travel on rough terrain, find objects to pick up, manipulate, and handle.”
It’s this athletic intelligence that the company is building into its three robots – Handle, Spot, and the research & development platform Atlas. “While we’re not all athletes, we all have very high levels of athletic intelligence,” said Raibert. “Our goal at Boston Dynamics is to develop athletic AI for robots so that they’re more effective in the world.”
Acrobatic ‘stuntronic’ robots from Disney
Two speakers from Walt Disney Imagineering, Morgan Pope and Tony Dohi, discussed the history of the company’s animatronics that began back in 1964 with the introduction of the Abraham Lincoln figure that eventually was developed for the Hall of Presidents. Since then, the division working on animatronics has moved from hydraulic and pneumatic systems into electrical-based robots that could move around freely and interact with park guests. Their latest creation is the Na’vi shaman at Animal Kingdom in the Avatar attraction, but the two also discussed work on creating a “stuntronic” robot that could do acrobatic flips and spins.
Heavy on a discussion of the math and physics behind the robots, the two also showed videos of their progress in getting a humanoid-like robot to spin in the air like a trapeze artist. They gave a short preview of their latest model, which looks more human-like than previous, metal-based robot prototypes.
Pope also discussed how robots don’t always have to have a “business case” in order to be successful. “When I was getting my Ph.D. at Stanford, we would do all these really cool robots, and [people would say], ‘Hey, this robot is super cool. But what’s the business case?’,” Pope said. “And at Disney, ‘That’s super cool’ is the business case. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
Tony Stark, AI and redemption
Of course, super cool helps define Downey Jr., who came out on the stage last to discuss things such as the similarities between the history of AI, the Marvel cinematic universe, and the actor’s own well-publicized history of super-stardom, failure, and redemption.
“A quick disclaimer,” Downey said. “I don’t pretend to understand the complexities we face as a species, just because I portrayed genius in my professional life. My scholastic achievement peaked in a certain correctional facility.” At which point, he displayed a “mugshot” of himself in a graduation cap and gown.
During the rest of the keynote, Downey discussed similarities between the birth of AI, the making of movies, and the inclusion of diverse characters in the Marvel universe and similar advances in diversity in the AI and robotics field. At times the metaphors were stretched a bit thin, but the crowd was OK with this since it was Iron Man on stage discussing these things, and adding jokey segments about using his money from the recent “Avengers: Endgame” film to send actor Matt Damon to Mars.
But at times during the keynote, Downey opened up about his own struggles as an actor and the struggles that Tony Stark faced in the films, and how both overcame them through becoming more of a team player (Stark through the Avengers, Downey through collaboration with directors and others in the film industry).
“When I started to experience success in the ’80s and ’90s, folks would say, ‘Look at you, you’re special’!,” Downey said. “I’m sure in a different way, in a business way, every CEO here can relate to this in some way. I think it’s potentially debilitating because there’s a tendency to buy into it, and it can make you an island. So to me, success … is kind of a nasty, transitional, amorphous mud, and it can be forever altered if you don’t have some sense of principled behavior… I didn’t manage so well the first time around. Feel free to Google Court TV forward slash RDJ for reference.”
Downey concluded his keynote with a discussion of what was next for him, beyond continuing to act and produce. He discussed how he was a “one-man carbon footprint nightmare,” and wanted to do more to help clean up the planet. “The funny thing is when you want to change, the universe puts folks in your life that facilitate that, if only briefly,” Downey said. “Recently I was at a table of super-smart, impressive expert folks, and the following statement was made between robotics and technology: We could probably clean up the planet significantly, if not entirely, within a decade.”
He said he wanted to get out in front of that, and put together a coalition to inspire this development, but the reaction he got was “dead silent” from those in the room. “It was like I crapped in the kiddie pool, peed in everyone’s cornflakes, and forced them into an elevator stuck between floors and farted,” he said to a big laugh. Between things like turf wars, trade secrets, and cooperation between state and federal lines, let alone countries, Downey admitted that this was a “Kumbaya pipe dream.”
However, he then announced that “against all sound advice,” that he was going to spend the next 112 months to develop the Footprint Coalition, with the goal in using robotics and technologies to help “make a dent” in cleaning up the planet within the next decade.
“Then in 11 years, when I’m 65… if we make a dent I’m going to come back and I’m gonna throw the nuttiest retirement party you’ve ever seen,” Downey said, further blurring the line between the actor and Tony Stark.
It was a fitting moment for the overall theme of the re:MARS event, to bring together the “dreamers” and “builders” to work on innovations that go beyond just discussions of business cases for technology. Over the next few days, I expect to see additional ideas like Downey’s.